MGG: Malaysia's Grand Old Man Turns 80
By M.G.G. Pillai
24/3/2002 1:51 am Sun
Malaysia's Grand Old Man turned 80 on Friday, 22 March 2002.
Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, hale and hearty if a little frail, is one
of Malaysia's forgotten men, consigned to today's dustheap, but
none there is involved in every aspect of independent Malaysia
from its earliest days. His great intellect and talent was
tempered with his equally great arrogance and faults. This
Jekyll-and-Hyde side of his character made him distrusted amongst
politicians, and unsuitable as prime minister.
He is one of those men whose strength is on the side of
whoever is in power, for he is, like most of his ilk, unelectable
where it matters. This caused him to lose his place in the
Mahathir cabinet shortly after the transition in 1981. The prime
minister dislikes being challenged, and Tan Sri Ghazali's
frequent interjections made him increasingly a lone voice.
There is also no love lost between them, not after his unwise
attempts to be made deputy prime minister shortly before Dato'
Seri Mahathir Mohamed was. He is now a lone voice, increasingly
frustrated at political twists and turns of his beloved country,
utterly helpless at what he sees as the decline of everything he
But the affection he enjoys amongst those who came into
contact is enormous, as evident last night at the "Sentidos
Tapas" restaurant in the Starhill Shopping Centre in Jalan Bukit
Bintang. It was a gathering of the forgotten men of Malaysia's
recent history, interspersed with those of more recent vintage.
The Yang Dipertuan Negara of Negri Sembilan, Tuanku Jafar ibni
Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the former Yang Dipertuan Agung,
was there: as he pointed out, as a career diplomat, he was one
of King Ghaz's boys. The deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, rushed from Penang to attend. The
information minister, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob, like King Ghaz from
Pahang, was there, as was the Sultan's brother, Tengku Abdullah.
There was Tan Sri Shariff Ahmad who, in great magnanimity
resigned from the cabinet so Tan Sri Ghazali could remain. But
it only postponed his exit by two years.
Mr Des Alwi, the adopted son of an early Indonesian prime
minister, Mr Sutan Shahrir, and who worked the hardest to end
confrontation, was there, all of 75 years, the bon vivant he is.
As those in Wisma Putra, all now retired and all deeply beholden
to King Ghaz: Dato' Albert Talala, Mr Jack De Silva, Tun Haniff
Omar. There was Tan Sri Rama Iyer, former federal court judge
Dato' Zakaria Yatim, former court of appeal judge Dato' N.H.
Chan, the former chief minister of Sabah, Tan Sri Harris Salleh,
Dato' Herman Luping, Dato' Joseph Kurup, and numerous others.
As the high commissioners of the United Kingdom, Singapore,
Brunei and the ambassador of Indonesia.
I was there, like the others, a friend: we started off on
the wrong foot more than 30 years ago that he once seriously
considered me, as he told me decades later, for detention under
the Internal Security Act. I still meet him often to argue about
issues of the day, discuss the latest books we have read, and
into Malaysia's unwritten history, and come away with more than I
had when I came in. His long years of public service, his wide
reading, his serious thinking of issues of the day all provide an
experience I do not have. Perhaps we get along because few do
call on him nowadays, but I genuinely enjoy our visits, perhaps
more than he. He is for me a philosopher-in-residence to learn
from. His mind is as agile as ever, though he is now frail
though not infirm by any means.
I shall not attempt to list here his unerasable
achievements. If I did, I could barely scratch the surface. He
is a man of the past without whom Malaysia would not be what or
where it is. His arrogance prevented him from greater heights,
but I know of few who would not give an arm and a leg to bask in
the glory of what he has achieved. I once discussed with him if
he would have preferred to end his career at the height of his
powers, when the plane he was piloting crash landed and for a few
days he was presumed dead, in 1978, or now. He has that rare
acuity of mind to look at himself in history's shadow, and he
thought it would have been better for his reputation had he had
died then. I disagree, for what he did, in small ways and out of
the public eye and out of the cabinet and parliament, is of such
importance that Malaysia would have been the poorer for that.
Yesterday was a gathering of friends to honour a man the
likes of whom we would not meet again in a long time. The talk
was light, the conversation congenial, the food excellent, the
insights of history, since I was sandwiched between Mr Des Alwi
and Tan Sri Harris, and the Indonesian ambassador across the
table, both delightful and insightful. The gossip on such
occasions is a class of its own, interspersing history with the
mundane of recent vintage.
It is a pity the practitions of real politik do not write
their account of the behind the scenes of history. I had, from
Mr Des Alwi, a humane portrait of Malaysia's four prime
ministers, the private man against the prim austere public face.
The dinner lasted into the night, and when Tuanku Jaffar left, it
was past midnight. A small crowd stayed on long past their
bedtime bedtime. We could have done no less for a man who though
forgotten history cannot forget. He did not attain what he aimed
for, but he is the architect of that. We are glad to be his